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Space tourism: the final frontier

Space tourism: the final frontier
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First Published: Mon, Aug 29 2011. 10 51 PM IST
Updated: Mon, Aug 29 2011. 10 51 PM IST
Why does space fascinate you so much?
—Iris Brueggler, editor, News.at
I have always tended to be adventurous.
As a boy, I intended to become an athlete, and after a knee injury made that impossible, I continued to explore the world through other means. While many people focus on my commercial ventures, I have also set records for hot-air balloon travel, both trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific, and in 2004 set a record for the fastest amphibious vehicle crossing of the English Channel. Pursuing space exploration through Virgin Galactic is my latest adventure—one that poses interesting technical challenges.
Watching the final landing of space shuttle Atlantis at Kennedy Space Center in Florida last month was a poignant moment for me. It marked the end of a journey that started in 1981, when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (Nasa) space shuttle programme was launched. Since then, those reusable vehicles have travelled 542 million miles and carried 355 people from 16 different countries into space. It’s a programme that my team and I have closely watched, both in terms of our business and out of personal interest.
Until now, the development of rockets, spaceships and space travel has been the purview of the government only: During the Cold War, winning the space race was a matter of national pride for the US and the USSR. Now, with the end of the shuttle programme, the US government wants the private sector to develop the next generation of vehicles and platforms for near space exploration and travel.
At Virgin Galactic, we are taking on that challenge, and plan to offer suborbital space travel from our base in New Mexico within the next two years. Nasa’s focus will now shift to designing and building a long distance multipurpose spaceship, Orion, which they hope will be ready to transport humans to an asteroid by 2025 and to Mars by 2030.
Do you think men will ever be able to leave earth and live on other planets?
—Iris Brueggler, editor, News.at
A few years ago, Google and Virgin planned a prank for April Fools’ Day. On the day, I was giving a speech in Las Vegas. Towards the end I told my audience that I was going to give them a world exclusive: I announced the launch of a new venture called Virgle, with the aim of colonizing Mars and building a city there.
Providing few details, but with lots of enthusiasm, I explained how the Google founders Larry Page, Sergey Bryn and I were looking for volunteers ready to make the pioneering mission. Eager adventurers swamped the stage, proving that many people still feel the excitement and hunger for exploration that accompanied our first steps into space.
While it may be a long time before a private company reaches and colonizes other planets, government-funded missions are likely to reach Mars in the next generation.
You do a lot of charity activities, but today thousands of people are dying in Africa because they have nothing to eat. Wouldn’t it be better to give all the money invested in your space venture to Africa?
—Iris Brueggler, editor, News.at
I believe we need to do both. We do need to harness the power of the government, non-governmental organizations and the business world to meet the challenges of famine, poverty and climate change that we face today, such as the appalling famine in Somalia. But this should not be at the cost of human endeavour: The exploration of space has a wider purpose as we look for clues about how to address climate change and minimize its effects.
We will bring a fundamentally new market into space: the general public. When the first commercial flights were launched more than a hundred years ago (in Germany, by Zeppelin balloon), this accelerated the development of aviation technology, drove demand and, over time, lowered prices for the benefit of all. Orbital space travel will remain out of reach of the average citizen for some time, but suborbital space travel will be available to millions within the next decade.
Virgin Galactic’s architecture may help us to move beyond the jet-travel plateau of the last 50 years, providing the basis for the evolution of point-to-point transportation on earth. Someday, an innovation in suborbital travel could dramatically reduce the time it takes to move about the globe. We should be able to develop spaceplanes that can travel from London to Sydney in just a few hours.
Our space programme is designed to be as forward-thinking as possible: Our vehicles are almost completely reusable, which is the most important innovation required for radically lower-cost space transportation. And beyond our initial plans for space tourism, I hope we will use Galactic’s technology to develop commercial operations for launching small satellites and conducting scientific research in space.
Space exploration is essential to humanity’s future well-being. As government agencies refocus their efforts, our picking up the baton and embarking on the adventure of developing safe, clean and commercially viable technologies for space travel is a terrific challenge, and one that will make a difference to the planet.
BY NYT SYNDICATE
©2011/RICHARD BRANSON
Richard Branson is the founder of the Virgin Group and companies such as Virgin Atlantic, Virgin America, Virgin Mobile and Virgin Active. He maintains a blog at www.virgin.com/richard-branson/blog. You can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/richardbranson
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First Published: Mon, Aug 29 2011. 10 51 PM IST